last days in saigon: on blisters and rivers.

let me tell you something about the fear of abandonment.

and let’s stop here before we start so that i can just remind you: i am adopted. so i know abandonment. real abandonment. the big one. the OG. 

it didn’t end there, either. my early childhood was tinged with addiction, depression, and watery boundaries. so i get it. i’ve been there. i’m the top rated reviewer for tripadvisor there.

it is not surprising, then, that i grew up intensely codependent and almost crippled by the fear of rejection and abandonment. what might be surprising, though, is that i also grew up with an unshakable, irrefutable sense of self. or maybe it isn’t surprising, actually.

before we dive more deeply into the fear of abandonment, let’s quickly talk about blisters.

when i was little, i was in the girl scouts. our troop held its meetings at the local fire station. and one day, a nice fireman came in to talk to us about…i actually don’t remember what it was about. (i was like 8, k?) but during the talk, he said, “if you get a burn, never pop your blister. that liquid inside the blister is what will help it heal.”

the blister contains its own medicine. 

that stuck with me (probably more than the firefighter intended). looking back, i kind of get it. how in this cosmic wonderland called life i came in with two equally fervent and totally opposite inclinations: to be 100% authentically myself at all costs no matter what, and to be loved and accepted by everyone around me all the time so that no one would ever leave me again.

i spent decades divided within myself. i would vacillate between holding a relationship hostage every time my partner didn’t behave the way i wanted (“well, if you’re going to be like this, maybe this isn’t what i want after all…”) and clinging wholeheartedly to the other person or to the relationship to protect myself from the suffocating pain of being left.

it never occurred to me that there was a way out. and it certainly never occurred to me that the way out was actually the way in.

there is a river in cambodia called the tonle sap. it’s famous. for six months out of every year (rainy season), it flows in one direction. and for the other six months (dry season), it reverses. 

wait, what?

“The most unique feature of this system is its annual flow reversal. With the monsoon season’s heavy precipitation, the lake swells and feeds surrounding plant life. Once the rains stop, the Mekong shrinks and the Tonle Sap reverses its flow to pour back into the river. Six months a year it flows northwest, and the other six months it flows southeast to the river.” (i’m actually quoting myself because i wrote this article on the river and on the challenges the surrounding community is facing as a result of dams.)

once i have more distance and time to process, i hope that i’ll eventually unpack the emotionally charged relationship i have always had with cambodia. but for now, suffice it to say it has had a powerful influence on me.

anyway, as i began to take more conscious steps on this healing journey, i had the good fortune of coming into contact with matt kahn’s book, “whatever arises, love that.” it is a book profound in its simplicity. reminding us that any and all experiences, sensations, or emotions that arise in us are “the next in line to be loved.” that while we may not always love what we feel, we are always invited to love the one who feels it.

i loved this book so much that i read it straight through three times without breaks, willing its wisdom to seep into my skin. this, in combination with other self love practices, began to erode some of my walls, and things began to shift.

piece by piece, i started to understand. the instances where i felt jealousy, insecurity, rage, sadness, grief, fear, betrayal, by chasing a resolve rooted in another person, i was ignoring and neglecting the one in me who was feeling those things. every time i chose to fall down the rabbit hole of defensiveness, of argument, or of begging and pleading, i was choosing “not me.” i was engaging in self-abandonment in the hopes that i could have someone or something else. i had created my own worst fear. over and over again, i drowned in the agony of abandonment and betrayal. but i was doing it to myself.

eventually i came to an agreement, a knowing within myself. the understanding that: i won’t leave you. even if he or she does. that i will stay present with myself. with my emotions. show up for myself in my feelings with compassion, patience, and acceptance that i was so rarely given by others. by the same people whose love and attention i was seeking so desperately.

at the core of my being, that steadfast self had always been there. maybe partially or totally rejected by others. but unwavering in her innocence, in her willingness to stay and to wait for the light of my own loving attention. i contained my own medicine. because that’s how this whole thing works.

and in that understanding, the swollen banks of the tonle sap catalyzed the reversal of the river. and suddenly that love, that desire for connection, that was once flowing out of me in so many directions poured back in. and the starved, eroded, long neglected parts of myself came back to life to be integrated and welcomed as part of the ecosystem of my being.

(before this comes off as too self-serving or triumphant, i have seasons, just like the river. i still face what seems like insurmountable fear at the thought of losing those i love. i still catch myself sacrificing pieces of my being in the hopes that someone else will stay.  it is, like everything, a process.)

but as i enter my last 72 hours here in saigon, the city that has been my home and cocoon for the last four and a half years, i reflect not so much on the intricacies of vietnamese life and culture, or even on the “expat experience,” but on what this beautiful place has allowed me to start to become.

i leave saigon monday morning. it is, of course, bittersweet. but i’m not fearful. because at the very least, i am sure that i’m taking myself with me.


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